Jordan’s “open door” policy for Syrian refugees

As the battle in Syria continues to escalate, international media is beginning to pick up on the situation of those the fighting has displaced. News outlets are already predicting that Syria’s civil war will result in a refugee crisis of “epic” proportions, which will swamp Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.

Among Syria’s neighbors, it is Jordan that has the best reputation for welcoming refugees — its short history has been measured in waves of successive migrations, from the Caucasus, Palestine and Israel (several times), and Iraq. Unlike Lebanon, it is not saturated by Syrian security services, and compared to southeast Turkey in February, the climate is temperate. It is here that one would expect the lion’s share of Syrians to flee. [[BREAK]]

Given the current estimates of those numbers — in the thousands rather than even tens of thousands — epic seems a stretch. What is certain is that the situation is serious, changing rapidly, and appears to be getting worse. For months, Syrians have been fleeing to Jordan in relatively small numbers. A few weeks ago, the feeling among many of the people already working to help refugees in Jordan was that the situation, though it bore watching, was within the capability of local institutions to manage. Today, that feeling is rapidly dissolving.

But so far, the Jordanian government has not put forth much of a strategy for dealing with this crisis, which could evolve in many different ways. Handling the current uncertainty requires learning the lessons of past forced migrations, and in particular of the Iraqi refugee crisis of 2006-2010, which evolved under somewhat similar circumstances.

Jordan’s last refugee crisis came about, at least in part, because the Jordanian government and the international community had prepared themselves for the wrong disaster. When the bombs started falling on Baghdad in 2003, everyone expected Jordan’s borders to be swamped by tens to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, demanding sanctuary. When that didn’t happen, it was assumed that the danger was over.

No one seemed to predict what came next — the slow, continuous buildup of a displaced population. The border between Iraq and Jordan had long been heavily trafficked, and by 2006 many more Iraqis were entering Jordan than were leaving. Some came on business or vacation and decided to stay until home got safer. Some who already lived in Jordan decided to bring their families. Others fled — often after a kidnapping, or threats of violence against a family member. Many started off able to care for themselves, but months or years in exile, unable to work, ate away at their savings and left them in desperate need.

Today, in a strange sort of déjà vu, the discussion of Syrian displacement appears to center around the same assumption that a “crisis” will mean millions of families trying to cross the border all at once. The first response of the Jordanian government to this worry was to build a camp on the Syrian border. The partially state-owned Jordan Times recently ran a photo of a vast paved lot, surrounded by water tanks (it’s not clear where you’d pitch a tent on the paved ground), and unnamed officials told the paper two more camps are being planned. But both the government and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, which was put in charge of preparing the camps, have declined to talk about how the camps will be managed, or by whom — or even who is supposed to live in them.

The first camp was meant to open in mid-February, but there is no news of anyone actually using it; displaced Syrians, like the Iraqis before them, are taking up residence in Jordan’s cities. It is possible that President Bashar al-Assad’s next bombing campaign will indeed trigger an epic mass migration, with tens of thousands crowding Jordan’s borders, a situation that might call for camps to house the large numbers of displaced. But it seems rather more likely that the migration of Syrians will continue in the vein in which it has begun, which resembles the movement of Iraqis in 2006 more than the crowds fleeing the Nakba in 1948.

Syrians still appear to enjoy free entry to Jordan, without need for a visa (though again, the government has declined to clarify its border policies). They settled first in the northern towns of Ramtha and Mafraq, according to the Jordan Health Aid Society (JHAS), a local non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides free medical care at a network of clinics around the country. But as the numbers of the displaced have grown over the past year, (and, perhaps, as housing has become harder to find in Ramtha and Mafraq) many have moved to other cities and towns across the kingdom. JHAS treats Syrians living even in the southern governorates of Kerak and Ma’an.

Some Syrians try to cross into Jordan illegally — perhaps fearing being denied exit by their own government. So far, those who have been caught are temporarily detained at a government “guest house” in the north, until they pay a fee and normalize their status. The only Syrians kept under long-term detention are military defectors, of which the state papers report about 200.

In this situation, for whom is a camp intended? Will the government start sending all new arrivals there? And what about Syrians who are already living in Jordanian cities? Does the government think to move them? Or to provide services in the camps and hope that impoverished Syrians will come on their own?

The mostly likely guess (and it is, at best, a guess) is that the camps are not meant for Syrians at all, but for non-Syrians who might end up fleeing the fighting across borders. Such groups might include Palestinian and Iraqi refugees currently living in Syria, as well as Egyptian and East Asian migrant laborers. (There are plenty of precedents for this; after 2003, Jordan and Syria refused entry to Palestinian and Iranian refugees who were trying to flee Iraq, instead housing them in border camps.)

In the nightmare scenario of massive, sudden displacement, camps are useful; but in another predominantly urban refugee situation, they may turn out to be large white elephants that divert attention away from where the real issue is: the cities.

The second major lesson of the Iraqi displacement is that, particularly in a situation of urban displacement, there needs to be a serious attempt to find out who and how many are among the displaced, at least to an order of magnitude, and what are their needs.

In 2007, the Jordanian government wildly overestimated how many Iraqis needed aid, inflating the numbers aid organizations were seeing — possibly by a factor of between five and 10. Presumably this was a tactic for getting financial assistance from the international community, as use of the inflated numbers went hand-in-hand with requests for financial assistance. And substantial amounts of aid did arrive — perhaps because of the presumed scale of the crisis. But the aid was also delivered quite inefficiently, much of it spent on large infrastructure projects that did little to help displaced Iraqis, or put into programs that didn’t reflect the refugees’ needs.

read more here:

Categories: Asia, Jordan

Tagged as: ,

1 reply

  1. It was not mainly the Jordanian Government who ‘over-stated’ the number of Iraqi refugees. That was mainly UNHCR – the United Nations refugee agency, who was pleading for money to run their expensive bureaucracy (and small change for the refugees). UNHCR estimated the Iraqi refugees to be around one million in Jordan and two million in Syria. The real figure was less than half of that.

Leave a Reply